For educator and author Sherry Wildfeuer, the growing season is more than just a day-to-day planting schedule.
For her, and for many who practice biodynamics in farming, it is a cosmic rhythm that, if studied, respected and followed, can lead to healthier and hardier plants.
Wildfeuer is the author of the Stella Natura, an annual planting calendar that follows the sun, moon, planets and stars, and their effects on plant growth and development. She has been creating this calendar since 1978, growing from handwritten copies for herself and her friends to an annual print of 8,000 calendars.
To understand the concepts presented in Wildfeuer’s work, one should know Rudolf Steiner, who lived from the 1860s to the 1920s in Austria. Steiner was a philosopher and social reformer who worked to find connections between spirituality and science.
At the beginning of the 20th century, he founded a movement called anthroposophy, an esoteric spiritual movement, from which came the establishment of practical societal systems such as Waldorf education and biodynamic agriculture.
Biodynamic agriculture treats soil health, plant growth and livestock care as a single, collective organism. Herbal and mineral additives, the emphasis of composts and manures over chemical fertilizers, and the use of astrological calendars to determine optimal planting times are just some of the basic ideas set forth in biodynamic practices.
Wildfeuer was introduced to the work of Maria Thun during her time in Switzerland in the 1970s. Thun was an authority on Steiner’s work. She dedicated her life to the research and application of his philosophies and studies. When tasked to replicate some of Thun’s experiments, specifically to plant gardens in relation to positions of the zodiac, Wildfeuer was amazed with the results.
Based on the positions of the zodiac, Wildfeuer observed that annual crops could be sown, transplanted, harvested and cultivated during specific times for the optimal growth of the desired part of a plant &tstr; bigger radish roots, higher-yielding tomatoes, bushier basil and longer-lasting flowers. By homing in on the four desired categories-leaf, root, flower and fruit &tstr; Wildfeuer’s calendar pinpoints days and parts of days better suited to cultivate these particular plant characteristics.
Though about half of the biodynamic community focuses on phases of the moon, Wildfeuer studies and calendars based on more nuanced and complex astronomy. Her Stella Natura includes a key to interpret each month, from the zodiacal constellations and the course of the moon to the sun, moon and planets in the sky and their significant planetary events. An outline offers a basic lesson in astronomy and a guide to reading and interpreting the symbols listed for each day.
“You don’t have to give up critical thinking to appreciate the calendar,” Wildfeuer said. She continues to keep an experimental garden each year to continue to trial her calendar, and encourages those who are curious about the practice to experiment themselves and observe the results.
“The plants provide their own evidence,” she said.
She also urges growers to use common sense when working with the calendar. The charts are meant to assist, not dictate, and flexibility for life, weather and outside factors should always be considered when creating a planting schedule.
“The astronomical information offered in the charts is, like the weather, part of the nexus of environmental factors which affect the plants in your care,” she writes in her calendar introduction.
“It’s a labor of love,” says Wildfeuer of the calendar. She began working on the calendar for herself during her spare moments at the Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, an intentional farming and handcrafting community rooted in anthroposphic values and which includes adults with developmental disabilities, where she still resides today.
Wildfeuer’s husband suggested printing the calendar for a wider audience, and in 1978 the Camphill Village printed 1,000 copies of the calendar. Though the printing has expanded to 8,000 today, Wildfeuer still handwrites the symbols as she creates the calendar for the next year.
“It’s a personal challenge to try to get those glyphs right by hand every time,” she said.
The calendar also contains a map of the constellations, and a series of articles that Wildfeuer meticulously vets each year for inclusion in the print. She is currently working on the 2020 calendar, gathering and editing articles and creating the charts right up through the fall, when she sends it off to the printer. She has a personal story for every author she invites to write for the calendar, and each chooses an essay topic he or she is passionate about. This year’s calendar includes subjects such as the individuality of the farm and the promise of consumer associations to put forward their values within the food system. Essays by arborists, farmers and educators are printed with each monthly chart.
Todd Newlin is the vegetable grower at Hawthorne Valley Farm, a certified organic and biodynamic farm in Columbia County, New York. Previously, he was the vegetable grower at Kimberton Hills for years, and is Wildfeuer’s son-in-law.
When Newlin first learned about biodynamics a decade ago, he was skeptical. Yet, he kept an open mind and, like most farmers he was interested in learning new information that could help him farm.
“After meeting Sherry and others in the biodynamic world, conversations and study groups helped me deepen my understanding. The concepts and ideas rang true to me, so I naturally adjusted my approach and practice,” he said
Every year, Newlin sits down with the Stella Natura at his side as he plans for the coming season. He creates a planting guide with projected seeding, planting and harvest dates, and the calendar acts as an additional guide in the process.
Wildfeuer hopes that the calendar will be more than just a tool for the grower. For her, the essays and the essence of the calendar reflect a philosophical worldview where all is interconnected and humans are communing harmoniously with the natural world each day. One has to appreciate subtleties to maximize the benefits of this calendar, and one cannot compartmentalize agriculture and see the full value of treating the sky as a guide to earthly practices.
“I don’t want to be a part of using the planets, the moon and the stars in a utilitarian way,” she said. “This is holy territory.”
“Rhythm, practice and experience are very important,” Newlin said. “The calendar helps with that rhythm. It helps to put a little bit more depth of meaning and thought into the physical practice of farming. I think many of us are interested in a deeper sense of being in the world, whether that is a spiritual journey or finding a better way in how we work and fit into the complex system of nature.”
Wildfeuer also travels around the region to give workshops about using the calendar and anthroposophic values. She has presented at past Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conferences and has discussed her work with the staff at companies like Badger Health and Body Care in New Hampshire. All calendar proceeds benefit Camphill Village Kimberton Hills.
Biodynamic agriculture is practiced worldwide, and even those who do not characterize their operations as specifically biodynamic have found benefits while using the calendar.
“I have used the Stella Natura calendar for five years,” said Reuben DeMaster of Willow Haven Farm in Lehigh County. “At first, I used it to try and grow healthier crops. I continue to use it as a reminder that the world consists of things beyond the natural and material world.”
Matthew LaVergne of Black Moon Hollow Farm in Worcester County, Massachusetts, is using the calendar for the first time this season. “I am using the Stella Natura to refine my planting schedule, both to be in tune with the natural cycle of the moon’s effect on seed germination and plant growth, as well as a simple, organizational benchmark.”
As for skeptics? Wildfeuer invites them to plant a garden and watch.
“Let the plants be your teachers,” Wildfeuer said. “I think people who are growing will see it.”